The third annual Clusterfest in SF's Civic Center will surely be one that Comedy Central and Superfly try to learn from — even if the drama of Saturday's line situation was a bit overblown, and avoidable.
Having obviously sold way more tickets for Saturday than for either other day, and having not done enough messaging about the fact that there was not going to be anything different or superior about John Mulaney's first set versus his second set on Saturday, organizers had a much-tweeted-about clusterfuck on their hands by the evening of Day 2. The festival also made a change to shift most of its biggest names to the indoor stage at Bill Graham Civic Center, the floor of which was mostly filled with chairs, setting up all the ingredients for a crowd-control nightmare when too many people tried to force themselves in for Mulaney's early set. (The problem was compounded by people staking claim on seats from the show that preceded that one, because: festival.) The problem did not repeat itself for any of the other headlining sets, in part because attendance was clearly lower on both Friday and Sunday nights.
What I found most notable about this year's festival was the unusually high percentage of LGBTQ comedians. This included Amy Poehler's "friends" showcase on Friday; Whitney Cummings' opener (and former SF comic) Guy Branum; "Comedy Central Presents: Up Next Stand-Up" up-and-comer Molly Kearney; trans female comedian Robin Tran; local comedian Irene Tu; SF drag queens Peaches Christ, Heklina, D'Arcy Drollinger, and Matthew Martin; Rupaul's Drag Race stars turned TV hosts Trixie Mattel and Katya Zamolodchikova; opera singer-turned comedian Matteo Lane; southern lesbian comic Punkie Johnson; SNL writer and standup Julio Torres; Queer Eye star Jonathan Van Ness; and TV-famous lesbian comics Fortune Feimster and Tig Notaro. The diversity represented and the hilarious sets offered by all of these comics made some of the straight comedians' work feel downright archaic. (Case in point: Leslie Jones' opener on Sunday, Lenny Marcus, wanted to talk about differences between "guys" and "girls," and clearly didn't know his audience when he asked San Francisco if it had heard of this new trend that "girls" were into at restaurants called "farm-to-table cuisine.") Perhaps it just stands to reason that some of the edgiest and funniest work happening on comedy stages right now is coming from voices who were traditionally sidelined until just recently.
Tig Notaro did her same 15-minute set twice on Sunday, once as part of a showcase of Southern comics in one of the smaller "club" spaces, and again on the Bill Graham stage with a few extra minutes added. Included was a quick bit about how she arrives in San Francisco going, "San Francisco!" in a delighted tone (marveling at the beauty), and then turns a corner and goes, "San Francisco!" in a frightened, horrified tone, for obvious reasons.
Jones' set, the last on the outdoor "Colossal Stage" Sunday night, was filled with energy, and centered on her tales of being a self-described "ho" in late 1980s new York — a particularly hilarious bit recounts her dancing for Prince at a Grammy Awards afterparty, helicoptering around her Sade ponytail.
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I did not laugh cry until @lesdogggg closed it out 😂 You're the best Leslie, you crazy unicorn 🦄 And yes, I know who Tevin Campbell is #canwetalk @sordociego & @colinjost were so funny telling stories about SNL (said no pics) @myfavoritemurder @chrisreddis @eggyboom @nickthune 🙃🤪 If you've seen @thedanband in a movie you know how inappropriate in every situation they are 😄 @clusterfest it's been real. My face hurts. My abs hurt. We out ✌️#clusterfest
Speaking of Trixie and Katya, their San Francisco stage return — both in a staged reading of Romy & Michelle's High School Reunion and hosting a karoake show in the Drunk History Pub — was one of the most exciting developments for local drag fans. The duo is best known for their television high-jinks on RuPaul's Drag Race and The Trixie & Katya Show, and on their YouTube show. Team Katya members know she took a hiatus from the show for ummm, personal reasons, with Bob the Drag Queen filling in for the latter episodes of the The Trixie & Katya Show’s 2018 season. But the two are performing together again, and fans were thrilled. The karaoke set was a great interactive experience as people actually got to take the stage with Trixie & Katya (and of course get personally insulted by their savage extemporaneous wit), and the two queens stopped to take selfies with every single person who asked them for a picture.
And speaking of Irene Tu, she was added as a surprise extra opener for Patton Oswalt — who, like Amy Poehler with her headlining set Friday, chose to highlight all LGBTQ comics as his openers, making it feel like an unofficial kickoff to SF Pride week. Tu is one of SFist's very favorite local standups and is best known for the monthly Man Haters Comedy show. Her ten-minute warmup set made the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium go bananas. New York standup Matteo Lane followed Tu (referring to himself as “Gay No. 2”), and his freaky charisma and terrific timing made his set a treat. North Carolina-born Fortune Feimster then did a memorable routine that made light of trying to lose weight while having been raised on a Southern diet.
Patton Oswalt’s closing act began with some first-person local hangover tales from when he lived in the Lower Haight from 1992-95. The remainder of his hour-long set was not local, but still slapped the audience stupid with laughter thanks to Oswalt’s signature style that somehow successfully worked fetal alcohol syndrome jokes into a routine about a Denny’s menu.
So despite its logistical snafus and social media complaints — to which Comedy Central and Superfly say, "We’ll keep listening and working to make this the best fan experience." — the third Clusterfest delivered three days of steady laughs in addition to some great music. (With one fewer outdoor stage than in the past, the music acts were far fewer, but The Roots' Friday set was incredible.)
We look forward to next year when hopefully they pour the $14 drinks a touch stronger, and they figure out how to balance out comedians' desire not to freeze outside, and the audience's desire to see them.
Joe Kukura and Bernie Pesko contributed reporting for this article.